All eyes on Paris Hilton: The hotel heiress on taking charge of her image

Paris Hilton (Photo by Chris Zylka)
Paris Hilton (Photo by Chris Zylka)

From LLNYC: Ten years ago, I never imagined I would be — seriously — asking Paris Hilton whether she would consider running for president of the United States.

But in light of Donald Trump’s win — and interest in the top job from celebrities such as Oprah and Kanye West — Hilton’s 2008 gag song “Paris for President” (in which she promises to be “your commander in bikini”) and the photos she tweeted of herself on Election Day 2016 in front of a pink White House look less like a joke and more like a possible glimpse into the future.

Alas, Hilton tells me, she is not interested in being president. She is too busy running her empire.

That empire is Hilton’s multi-billion dollar international business, which encompasses — to name a few things — Paris Hilton-branded perfumes, hotels, clothes and accessories. But like many so-called celebutantes, her business is also herself or rather, it’s her image, which she has recently made an effort to change. If in the past, she appeared to be a pretty but spoiled L.A. heiress, now she resembles a polished professional woman à la Ivanka Trump (a family friend and also a blond, beautiful real estate heiress with a highly recognizable last name).

In the more than 13 years that Hilton has been famous, she’s managed to transform herself into a formidable businesswoman, complete with sky-high heels, power dresses and talking points. And she has a newfound wariness of fame. “When anyone enters this business, they need to know they’re being watched at all times,” she tells LLNYC. “It’s important to watch what you do, who you hang out with.”

At 36 years old, Hilton, perhaps better than anyone else, understands exactly what it means to be “watched at all times.” She starred in one of the first reality shows, “The Simple Life,” which depicted her wreaking havoc on small towns across America with her best friend and Chihuahua in tow. Viewers quickly became hooked, even obsessed with her.

Somewhere along the line (or perhaps all along), Hilton realized that if she was going to be watched, she was going to take control of what we were going to see.

Just last month, she made headlines after snapping a few photos of herself with brown hair and posting them on Instagram, captioning one #brunetteshavefuntoo. It sparked a wave of blog posts bemoaning the fact that “nothing from the early 2000s is sacred anymore.”

Turns out, the brown hair was a wig she was wearing for her part in a short film, “Sorry,” which she is producing with her boyfriend, actor Chris Zylka. “I wear wigs all the time,” she tells LLNYC. “For disguise or just for fun.” The photos were silly, but they sparked a deep existential crisis in the hearts of fans who thought they knew her. After all, who is Paris Hilton without her blond hair?

Hilton doesn’t just look the part of a businesswoman; her ventures have also paid off big time. Since 2004, she has released 23 different fragrances (her latest, Rosé Rush, will be released this month), which have made more than $3 billion. She has over 50 retail stores around the world that sell her own line of clothes and low-priced animal-print handbags and accessories. One of her two books, “Confessions of an Heiress,” was a New York Times best seller (she is currently working on her third). Thanks to her regular DJ sets at the “Foam and Diamonds” party at Amnesia nightclub in Ibiza, club owner Martin Ferrer says she’s the “highest paid female DJ in the world.” She has her own hotel, the Paris Beach Club, in the Philippines, and is opening another there, as well as exploring other international locations. And finally, she is investing in a VR game, which she doesn’t want to talk much about but says it will be “a social platform mixed with VR and an experience that has to do with me.”

In a way, Hilton has always been ahead of the curve. Recently, she’s been getting credit for being a forerunner for stars like the Kardashians, who also managed to turn their fame into fortune. W Magazine even recently credited Hilton with “[inventing] everything you’re doing in 2017” like the selfie.

Other stars rely on the power of social media to wield their influence, but Hilton became famous without it, a fact she proudly reminds me. “When I first came into the scene and the industry, there was no Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter, there was nothing. I had no publicist, no agent, no stylist. I basically just did this all on my own.”

“It’s important to watch what you do,
who you hang out with.”

Today, Hilton does of course have a sizable social presence; she has more than 7 million followers on Instagram and tells me one of the first things she does every morning is check her hashtag. But she bore witness to social media’s rise as a phenomenon, and seems to take a more critical perspective on it than other power users.

In fact, she is even producing a documentary about social media. While she doesn’t offer up too many specifics about the movie, she says it will feature her and some other influencers and will explore “how social media has affected everyone, our world, about how kids are growing up with it.”

Although she believes social media has mainly had a positive impact on society, she is concerned about what it is doing to children’s self-esteem, particularly young girls.

“When I have a daughter one day, I don’t want her to be so obsessed with social media,” she says. “I just think there are way more important things in life.”

Certainly, she worries about online bullying, and advises those on the receiving end of mean comments — which she has received a lot of in her lifetime — to ignore them. “It’s obviously very miserable, lonely bored people who do that. So who cares what they think? They’re losers.”

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Social media has its place in her empire, though. Hilton likes to talk about the access it gives her to her fans. And they in turn, love the attention they get on it from her. Though Hilton’s 7 million Instagram followers may pale in comparison to Kim Kardashian’s 101 million, the followers Hilton does have are incredibly loyal.

One superfan, Leighton Snowden, runs “Hilton World,” an Instagram page with more than 79,000 followers, from his home in Newcastle, England. Only 18 years old, Snowden is too young to remember Hilton when she was on “The Simple Life,” but says he first became interested in her when her show “Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend” aired (a spin-off of the U.S. show “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF”), and then started his page after he saw an interview with her on television in 2013.

Hilton and Chris Zylka at the amfAR Gala Cannes at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d’Antibes, France, in May.

Since then, his page is one of the most popular Paris Hilton fan pages, and Hilton herself follows it and frequently sends Snowden messages thanking him.

“He just puts so much time and love and effort into it. I really appreciate what all of my fans are doing. They are always there for me, and I love them a lot,” Hilton gushes.

For his part, Snowden says he appreciates Hilton’s attention and devotion to him; she often sends him packages with her products and handwritten notes (one reads: “To Leighton, everything you do means the world to me. Love you so much, thank you for all your love and support. Love always, your friend, Paris”).

“She doesn’t get enough credit for being a businesswoman and she doesn’t get enough credit for being nice to her fans,” Snowden says. “Not many celebrities really interact with their fans.”

Hilton travels a lot and says she makes time for answering fan letters during flights or in the car. When she is not traveling, she lives in Los Angeles near Zylka, who starred in HBO’s “The Leftovers.”

The two frequently collaborate on projects, and Zylka took the photos for LLNYC’s cover profile.

“One of the things I love most about him is how talented and creative he is. We love making art together, doing photo shoots and making music. I loved having my man behind the camera, you can see it in my smile in my photos.”

Hilton was born and raised in New York and grew up in the Waldorf Astoria, but although she owns an apartment in Noho that she bought in 2014 for $5 million, she doesn’t have plans to move here permanently.

“It would just be too many animals to move to New York full time,” she says. Her pets have their own mini-mansion in the backyard of her mansion in L.A., and their lives are documented on their own Instagram account (@hiltonpets, which has 104,000 followers).

Hilton has accepted her position as a role model (“since so many people have said it to me, I feel like I am one”) and knows that with her newly earned respect comes responsibility.

And so she does her part to be a good person. For many years, Hilton has been involved in charity work, including the Make a Wish Foundation, the Race to Erase MS and animal organizations. In 2014, she received the National Humanitarian Medal from the American Humane Society. 

“I have donated part of the Children Cancer Wing at the L.A. Children’s Hospital,” Hilton tells me. “I also go Downtown to the homeless shelter, the Los Angeles Mission, during the holidays. God has blessed me in so many ways and I think that it is so important to give back.”

She also cares deeply about the environment, and says she wishes the United States had not pulled out of the Paris climate accord (though in November, she admitted to an Australian TV network that she voted for Donald Trump, whose modeling agency she joined when she was 19).

“I think everybody should be concerned about it, it’s our world,” she tells LLNYC. “So it’s really scary what’s happening with the environment, just all the pollution destroying the Earth. And it’s sad that people aren’t aware of it.”

If there is anyone who is able to raise awareness about something, though, it has to be Paris Hilton. She might not be running for president, but she does have an opportunity, and maybe even a responsibility, to use her fame and brand for the greater good.

Whatever next step she chooses to take, the world will certainly be watching.